BOOK REVIEW / From fez to panama and back: 'Empire's Edge: Travels in S E Europe, Turkey and Central Asia' - Scott Malcomson: Faber, 8.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
ROMANIANS want to be part of Europe, although the stronger dream is often of America. Bulgarians want to be Europeans as well. Turkey has even applied for European Union membership and is keen to try again. In Uzbekistan, pan-Turkic nationalists look towards Istanbul for salvation, while others long for a post-Soviet regional unity which has so far been slow to meld. In an eastward sweep through the post-Communist vacuum, Scott Malcomson found high anxiety about economic prosperity and political leadership, but mainly about national belonging. 'Turks say they're Europeans when they think it's useful to be Europeans,' according to one young woman quoted by Malcomson. 'Nobody really feels European. We're just Turks - a mish-mash.'

Turkey is the odd one out in the quartet. In Romania, Bulgaria and Uzbekistan, people are wondering how to resuscitate the old national and religious framework in what are still Communist surroundings. Post-war Bulgaria, for instance, was built for ethnic Bulgarian Communists, urban dwellers who existed in insufficient numbers to fill out the roads and parks built for them. People can't rebuild the whole country overnight to suit new ambitions. The People's Republic of Bulgaria first went out of fashion, then out of existence, but its people still have to live in it. That's the kind of dislocation that Malcomson's entertaining curiosity thrives on.

But alth ough Turkey is out of step in terms of recent events, the secularising reforms of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s offer an example and a warning about changing cultural identities by act of political will. In 1925, Ataturk outlawed the fez in favour of the panama hat, and toured the provinces asking 'Where are your hats?' When the fez was introduced by the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II in 1829, it too had been thought a symbol of the West. A hundred years later, it had become distinctively Islamic. In a panama hat, it isn't possible to lower your forehead to the ground in prayer, because the brim gets in the way. So Ataturk's dress code forced a choice: you could be Islamic or Western, but not both at once. Two hundred years earlier, Peter the Great ordered his nobles to cut off their beards or pay a tax, because beards were Asiatic. In the Uzbek Muslim stronghold of Namangan, Malcomson hears an imam preaching against Western clothing. Meanwhile, back in Istanbul, female university students in headscarves are pushing against Ataturk's secularism, while the government builds links with Central Asia based on a long-neglected historical unity.

Malcomson is a deferential visitor. He wants to listen; his rare questions are humbly inquisitive, not knowing. He often adopts the second person ('you leave Batak with your Turkish friends'), as if pulling the reader in as a travelling companion, or else thinking aloud to himself. This becomes irritating after a while, but he does live easily in faiths and communities which are not his own, and brings a caring intelligence to family expeditions and one- paragraph vignettes. This is social anthropology of the most lucid kind, not the sort of travel writing that turns foreign countries into parades of whimsy. There are also longer, more analytical chapters. The accounts of Russian and Soviet expansion east of the Caspian Sea, or of inter-war Romanian intellectuals' intolerance in pursuit of a national identity are excellent slices of history by any standards.

The Romanian chapters notwithstanding, Empire's Edge contains one central equation, which weighs local faiths and tradition against Euro- aspirations, leaving no doubt that the former carry more value. It's a kind of alternative propaganda for Islam. Instead of mad mullahs, Malcomson delights in deli Turkomans, genuinely crazed with faith and zeal, who in the 13th century expanded Islam into what is now Bulgaria. The best example of the regional self-sufficiency this book argues for is mahallacilik, the sense of community that comes from living in a mahalla, or Uzbek community group, surrounded by relatives and sustained by Islamic traditions. At times, Malcomson seems in danger of revelling too excitedly in the communal idyll, although he's clearly right that no amount of EU-compatible tomatoes will ever be worth a Sufi epic.

(Photograph omitted)